MacKinnon: Edmonton Oilers tired of explaining what went wrong
Young team grew up a bit, had fun and suffered during lockout NHL season, but they weren’t good enough to reach post-season
Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger talks to the media at Rexall Place on Sunday.
Photograph by: Bruce Edwards
Ralph Krueger is a cerebral sort and on the day after the Edmonton Oilers seventh straight non-playoff season ended, the Oilers head coach was waxing eloquent about pleasure and pain.
“There has been a tremendous amount of growth; there’s been a tremendous amount of pain,” Krueger told assembled media on Sunday at Rexall Place, as the metal band Motley Crue took over Rexall Place to deliver its own mix of pleasure and pain. “We’ve had pleasure, also, on this journey.”
Krueger was referring to the emotional ups and downs his players experienced in the 48-game 2012-13 NHL season.
But it’s safe to say the fans endured more pain than pleasure in a season in which the Oilers teased the faithful, ever so briefly, with the promise of a playoff berth, then broke their hearts with a late-season collapse, losing six straight games to fall out of the playoff race in the final three weeks.
The Oilers finished with a flourish, winning 6-1 in Minnesota on Friday night, then strafing the Vancouver Canucks ‘B’ team for six third-period goals en route to a 7-2 victory in the season finale, leaving the Rexall Place ice to a standing ovation.
In that final game, Nail Yakupov made his final case for the NHL rookie-of-the-year award (Calder Trophy) with his first career hat trick. Taylor Hall picked up two assists, finishing the season with 50 points in 45 games, ninth overall in the NHL.
Rookie defenceman Justin Schultz finished with a four-point night on a goal and three assists, giving him 27 points on the season, and goalie Devan Dubnyk was rock-solid, a final statement from the 26-year-old that he has emerged as a quality NHL goalie.
There are positives; there is hope.
But barely had the season ended before first general manager Craig MacTavish, on CBC’s After Hours on Saturday night, then Krueger on Sunday, acknowledged this team simply wasn’t good enough, not nearly physical or gritty enough to be a playoff team.
“We ended up with the result we deserved,” Krueger said.
On Saturday night, MacTavish said he had concluded some time ago the team wouldn’t qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament. Their opponents controlled the momentum of most games, or seized command at critical moments.
One key reason, MacTavish said, was that the team’s support players too infrequently were difference makers. More often, they were non-factors, leaving the outcome, win or lose, up to the skill players, who had trouble handling the heavy going.
To reconstruct his roster, MacTavish will have a high first-round (seventh overall) pick to leverage at the NHL draft, as well as a cluster of assets to dangle in possible trades.
Asked if there were untouchables on the Oilers roster on Saturday night, MacTavish told CBC: “I don’t really like saying that.”
Admitting there were players the Edmonton public would have “a certain degree of trouble parting with,” MacTavish added that “everything has its price,” as any shrewd horse trader should.
One possible trading chip the club won’t have is defenceman Ryan Whitney, an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
For the veteran Whitney, it was a painful season owing to his being a frequent healthy scratch. Slotted in as a fifth or sixth defenceman, Whitney felt he was miscast and misused all along, and said so on Sunday.
If Whitney won’t be back, neither, it appears, will forwards Ryan Jones and Eric Belanger, whose contract would have to be bought out.
It’s unclear which, if any, of the club’s six unrestricted free agents it would seek to retain, although hard rock defenceman Mark Fistric might be one candidate.
Veteran winger Ryan Smyth, who produced two goals and 13 points this season, insists he can still contribute, even in a reduced role, a reality he accepted this season, although not without resistance. He has one year remaining on his contract.
Asked what the team’s top off-season need is, Krueger said it was “offensive grit.” Perhaps the most painful lesson of all this season for the Oilers was realizing all their skill was not enough to produce consistent five-on-five scoring. The Oilers ranked eighth on the power play, and ninth on the penalty kill, but 23rd among the 30 NHL clubs in scoring at even strength.
That shortcoming became painfully apparent when, riding a five-game winning streak that lifted them into a playoff position in early April, the Oilers were manhandled in Vancouver, losing 4-0 on April 4, and mauled again in Los Angeles two days later, when they lost 4-1.
They lost the next four games and the playoff dream was over.
Krueger would not attach a number to the personnel changes that MacTavish will have to make. But it’s obvious they’ll have to find a puck-moving defenceman they believe to be an upgrade on Whitney, along with a sprinkling of gritty forwards who can support the kids more effectively.
Given the lack of goaltending depth in the organization, the Oilers will be in the market for a goalie or two, whether they choose to re-sign 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin or not. Krueger lavished praise on both Dubnyk and Khabibulin during his exit media conference, that’s for sure.
The organizational clock on the Oilers rebuild started in February 2010, making this just over three years of renovation. The fans, and a rump group of veteran players, though, have been around longer than that.
How long, captain Shawn Horcoff was asked, might it take for Oilers management to acquire the necessary components to be a team capable of going on another long playoff run.
“I hope it’s not long,” the 34-year-old Horcoff said. “I’m not getting any younger.
“It really is time. Our young (core) guys ... are not kids anymore. They’re going to be four years’ pro next year.
“It’s time to take that next step.”
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